Show Me the Money

The state gutted years of Ellen Reasonover and Steve Toney’s lives and tossed them out without apology. Now that money’s short for both, will the state ante up?

On their release, both Steve and Ellen had the option of filing for civil damages, but, attorneys concede, the prospects for success are limited -- the very reason Thompson's bill is so crucial. The immunities provided to police, prosecutors and judges and a fault-premised civil-law structure team to make damage awards excruciatingly rare at best. "A lot of these people who that this has happened to, it isn't any one person's fault," explains Adele Bernhard, associate law professor at Pace University in White Plains, N.Y., who tracks compensation legislation across the nation. "If somebody got raped and they all of a sudden saw you walking down the street, and they said, 'Oh my God, that's the person who did it,' and if they were a credible person, and they tell that to the police, the police have a responsibility to arrest you.

"And if the jury convicted you based on that person's identification, there would be nothing wrong with the verdict; it just so happens that you didn't do it. So, 18 years later, when they do the DNA test and they prove it wasn't you and you were right all along, yes, the victim was wrong, but she just made a mistake. So, generally, unless the police have torn up police reports or hidden witnesses or suggested that people lied or tortured confessions out of people, then nobody's done anything wrong. They've all gone along with the prosecution the way they normally would; it just happens to be the wrong person."

Indeed, Steve, a victim of mistaken identity, failed in his attempt to collect civil damages soon after his release. Ellen plans to announce her own civil suit, which she says will be filed later this month by New York attorney Barry Scheck. Scheck couldn't be reached for comment.

There have been some spots of civil success. An Illinois foursome known as the Ford Heights Four who spent a combined 65 years in prison collected a cool $36 million from Cook County two springs ago in a wrongful-prosecution lawsuit. Ellen and Steve, who knows what they'll get, if anything? Thompson's bill, Steve's only realistic shot, isn't exactly gaining legislative momentum, and Ellen, she can only wait and see what unfolds in the coming months. And until then? That's the question.

"I just wish I had money," Ellen says, drying her eyes, "from the movie deal, from the lawsuit, from the bill, from something. Then maybe, maybe I'd get me an apartment. I just want enough to pay rent, electric, gas, phone bill, get enough to eat. That's all."

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